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How a story gets into the paper without anyone checking a word

I watched two things on TV last night, and both rang bells in my head.

The first was an old Hercule Poirot film with David Suchet, based on the 1924 Agatha Christie short story “Western Star”.  It contains the lines…

Hastings: “I don’t know how they get these stories in the papers.”

Poirot: “They make it up.”

The other programme involved Zurich against Milan.  Part way through one of the commentators said something about Flamini.  I didn’t catch it exactly but the other one then said something like, “Flamini always looked better than he was at Arsenal because of who he was playing alongside.”    The point being that anyone can look good with Cesc playing next to you.

That was interesting because a) Milan didn’t look very good to me and b) I have never heard that criticism before of Flamini.   It is certainly true that he has not been the star of the show since leaving us, and I have made the point a couple of times that maybe Wenger took into account not just his final season with us, but his last three years.   Maybe Wenger didn’t think he was that good without Cesc.

Flamini has started half the league games Milan have played this season – which continues to give the impression that he is not really central to their team.

Anyway, my mind wandered, and I came back to the Agatha Christie comment, and I thought I would return to that old theme with a real life example of how stories get into newspapers.

In real life, away from watching and writing about Arsenal, I write a range of other things – including press releases for companies.

Recently I undertook some work with a significant and respected company (whose name it would be stupid of me to put here) who were researching  certain aspects of people’s behaviour.

Having done my bit to help the research along I was asked to write up a press release and circulate it to the national press.  I dutifully did my writing, and my colleagues circulated the piece to journalists.

What was interesting was what happened next.  My piece was about the research and its possible implications, but it was sent out by my company by email – not on the headed paper of our client.

The story was a good one, even though I say it myself, so I expected it to be covered – and it did appear in most papers from the Sun to the Telegraph.  But for once I thought I would check with my colleagues who work the newspaper desk, and I asked how the process had gone.

After we put out this press release, no one phoned us to check the story, no one phoned the client.  The nationals ran the story, taking my press release almost word for word.

Now I want to emphasise that point.  The newspapers all have journalists on their staff, and the mythology of newspapers created by the movies and by detective novels is that these journalists investigate matters, digging, probing, asking, searching…

In this case they were given a story – they had no research to do.  But you might have expected at least one of the papers – one of the more serious papers perhaps – to make a phone call to us or our client to check the details.  After all, anyone could have sent this out.

Yet it was almost as if the papers wanted my story to be true, and certainly didn’t want to risk an interview with the company knocking a good story on the head.  They would sooner believe a hoax (which of course in this case it wasn’t) than check that the story was real.

Now, in this case no one was deceived, and nothing went wrong.  The research was good, and the implications dramatic.   But my point is that there is no way that the journalists would know this.

But let’s transport this true tale to the sports department.   Supposing that instead of being a writer with a certain number of ethics in my sleeve, I was in fact working for a footballers’ agent.  He says to me, “Player x wants a pay rise.   There’s 5 grand in it for you if you can get a story in the press that will this along.”

I think about it, and write up a piece that says that Milan are looking at this player, and it is published.

Then with nothing more on the books I make up a completely fatuous story about Player Y from Spain and how he is unhappy at his club because he didn’t realise how wet and cold it can be in England.   The papers, without any other news, run it.   I don’t get paid, but my name moves up the register a bit.

Then another agent comes along with another tip, and I pick up some more money from the agent.

Next, one of the papers, seeing that they have run three of my stories just recently pick up the phone and say, “There’s money in it for you if your next story is an exclusive.”  I oblige.  I don’t have one, but I make it up.

In the world of football journalism standards are much, much lower than in other areas of the paper – but if the nationals are now not even going to check a story like this  – then that shows you how low we have got.   If we are not checking on the news pages you can imagine what it is like in the happy-go-lucky pages of the football section.

You’ll excuse me if I give no further hints as to who my client is or what the story was – I am sure you can understand why.   The key point is that this is the standard of journalism within a wide range of papers – including some of our most serious papers.

There is only one rule when looking at football stories in the paper.  Start from the premise that they are made up.

As for Flamini – I think there is good cause to say, maybe that commentator had a point.  Shame we didn’t hear more of it at the time.   Or put it another way, I wish I had thought of saying that when Flamini walked out.

Tony

16 comments to How a story gets into the paper without anyone checking a word

  • christianjimmy

    Intriguingly Tony there’s a film out right about now called “starsuckers” about almost exactly the same thing. a team of film-makers would ring up the celeb gossip pages of the papers with a fictious story about a celeb and then they would see how far the story would spread before someone realised it was based on no facts at all!
    Seems like football journalists follow the same principles!

  • Andy P

    Great post Tony!
    I do suspect that most of the gossip re transfers in the papers are made up, unless there is a source noted in the story, eg the agent being quoted directly, I never believe any of it.

    Not sure i want to believe the pavlyuchenko story either, even though in this case the agent has named arsenal(apparently) as being interested.
    food for thought!
    I will forward this web link to others. Should make some really interesting reading!

  • Tony. Great article.

    I always find it fascinating to explore how far journalistic integrity has fallen in this 24 hour “give me any news now” era that we’re in. Sports journalism is so pathetic at the best of times – more so because it also involves a lot of ‘former’ footballing personalities, whether it be ex-players, ex-managers or ex-referees who have no concept of journalistic professionalism.

    I wrote an article about the double standards in footballing journalism yesterday, and your blog today affirms some of my thoughts.

  • AnonymousGun

    please.. not that sp*ds reject please.. Let Merida play is a better option.

    If there are really some activity in January.. then lets assumed it is to replace Big Phil. Finding anyone up top would be so un-AW-like.

  • Stuart Dowling

    Hi Tony.

    My names Stuart I have been an Arsenal fan double year 70/71. So that shows you how long ive been supporting them.

    Tony im writing to you to ask a couple of questions.

    1) Why are you so pro wenger and

    2) Why the seemingly blind support for project youth.

    I am not a hate wenger but I have some major doubts at present would like to discuss some topics with you if you ever get the time.

    I live now in Phoenix Arizona so I only get streaning games or Fox Soccer Channel.

    You have a great site and I really enjoy some of the aryicles.

    My background is compiling cases for International law between large companies and relatively bankrupt African States.

    Kindest Regards

    Stu

  • LRV

    How right you are Tony. I remember in 2004 at a College in the Lewisham area of London, one of the students wrote a purely fictitious, but interesting term paper. I checked it, showed to other members of staff; we all laughed about it. Unexpectedly one lady clerk accindentally put it in an envelope instead of a letter she was meant to post. Imagine our surprise and amazement when we found ourselves reading the same story in one of the papers two days after. No one bordered to check the validity of the story before going to town with it. That’s how degraded and rotten our journalists are today.

    I am not in the least surprised though. When people who did not, at their time, play particularly good football or were, even at their best, merely below average managers and referees now constitute the authoritative pundits on our television or columnists in our news papers, what do you seriuosly expect?

  • Cape Gooner

    Thanks Tony. To have a firsthand story of this type is great. Firsthand equals proof.

    The press is particularly important in Football. The press lies even more about politics as owners and advertisers exert great influence. Although there might be bias in Football, I don’t think that Murdoch instructs his editors to create an anti-Arsenal climate. However, in politics, the people have a vote. In Football, they don’t. We need the press to create the pressure to keep the EPL and FIFA in check.

    Are there journalists who are prepared to talk about this corruption? Or are the sanctions that, say, the EPL can place on a newspaper too great to allow it?

    To my mind the place to start is with transparent rules that the referees must follow and that the referees are supplied with the tools to do the job. The rules say that a foul in the penalty box is a penalty, but it is obvious that no referee blows that way. If the rules are wrong, then change them. Otherwise the whole system is wide open for corruption.

    Many of the comments over the last couple of days have praised AW for being above the corruption, talking sense and not being willing to compromise to win in a fixed system. I applaud these sentiments. I hope that he can generate enough personal loyalty from the players to overcome their frustration at the great difficulties placed in their way.

    Other clubs might have worse problems. Chelsea was robbed when they lost their Champions League semi against Barcelona. If I was Abramovich, and that were to happen again, I would walk away.

  • walter

    Once again a good article.
    The name in dutch for a reporter is ‘journalist”. But we sometimes name them, well I confess I do it alot, “hoernalist”. In Dutch the first word “hoer” is the same word used for a prostitute, but with a more negative connotation. I think this says enough what I think of the press.
    And the feeling has not improved in the last months with the reaction towards Eduardo and other incidents involving Arsenal and (ex)Arsenal players.

    The few times I have been personnaly involved with the press gave mixed feelings. Once on TV in a consumer programm I was interviewed and they gave it like it was and used what I said (also the things said not in front of the camera) in the programm and it looked rather correct.
    With newspapers I have mixed feelings. They once interviewed my 2 oldest children about refereeing and I must say that the reporter made rather a messy report with many errors in it. He had talked before with a member of the FA and you could see that the things he laid in to the mouth of my children was in fact wath the person of the Fa had said. Was it because the reporter was lazy, incompetent I don’t know. But I do know that what my children said was not printed as it was said in the paper. So since them I am very carefull when I read an interview. Is it really what the interviewed person said or is it what the reporter wanted the interviewed person to say.
    Off course this is only some of my own experience and one has to be carefull because I could have had bad luck on occasions.
    I’m sure there ar reporters out there who try to do an hones job but I think that after a while you find out that you have to walk between the lines or you will/could lose your job.

  • “How much do you want for him”…..”10M”…..”Hm, we’ll think about it”……Arsenal are in transfer talks (Selling club)
    “Do you want my client?”…..”Hm, we’ll heve a look at him”…….”I would love to play for Arsenal” (Agent)
    Scouts at matches…….”Arsenal are intereated in player, but selling club want too much” (Arsenal)
    Wife looking at houses in London…”My club is holding me back” (player)

  • Stuart Dowling – my apologies for holding your comment in moderation for so long. Everyone posting for the first time goes to moderation – but I was very busy at work this afternoon and did not get to the moderation queue.

    I think your questions: why Wenger, why youth, are really good ones to return to and deserve an article on their own. I’ll try and give you a complete answer – just from my point of view – in an article in the next day or so.

    Tony

  • LRV – I should have added, I utterly loved your story. I can just see it happening.

    Tony

  • Davi

    Have to disagree about flamini.
    He carried the team along with adebayor in a lot of games – obviously cesc and hleb and others were fantastic as well, but in some matches where we everyone else dropped their game a bit, flamini kept going and adebayor scored vital goals. He is one of the few players around who can play extremely well consistently throughout a season (like essien).
    Remember too, cesc didnt look so hot last season (before & after his injury) and I think this new formation has been built to suit him, so he has 2 players making sure he can concentrate more on attack than defence – so flamini was like 2 players for us the season before he left (give-or-take).
    He may not be doing so well at milan, but if they played him consistently in his natural CM position, they’d reap the benefits. Id still love to have him back. It’s debateable who is better out of him and song. Personally I think flamini is better defensively but song is more skillful and powerful – either way Id love to have them both in this arsenal side!

    Anyway, that wasn’t really the point of your article. Eye-opening stuff 🙂

  • Hartwick89

    Toni,
    Great point that goes to the heart of this mass media frenzy! Also, I love the way you taylored what you do to the trend we see not only in football but to the way people believe what they want to rather than proper fact checking that would otherwise influence truth. I think that is what your at with this article. Truth actually matters! The truth is as I remember it as Flamini is concerned is he had a career year his last before exiting Arsenal…And, now he is not central at AC because he is not that good. and, prior to his last year at Arsenal he was not that good. I believe as you correctly stated that’s why AW let him go. He could have stayed and Arsenal would have done quite well but eventually his past would have caught up to him and Song, Denilson et al would have replaced him. So back to your point writers like you are what make reading good! Because you have ethics and therefore truth prevails! Shame on readers who believe any writer without proper fact checking. Alas, society is lazy and would rather believe shit than find the truth. keep up the good work!

  • Brickfields Gunners

    Nice and timely article Tony.I’ve come to the opinion that newspapers in general do not check their facts and make up a mountain from a molehill.This applies to all fields -politics in particular but speculation in sports does add to the overall interest.It becomes criminal
    when malice , vindictiveness,revenge and personal agenda for/and profit gets into the picture.We can only hope that everyone conducts themselves honestly ,decently and professionlly.
    I have to agree with Davi that Flamini was worth keeping and that he carried the team many times with his up and at them mentality.He was voted the player fans would most like to return to Arsenal by a blog- and this was over players like Henry ,Hleb ,Reyes ,Adebayor and Kolo Toure.

  • tim

    spot on. football writers are scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to quality, integrity, and talent.

    which makes me wonder about the football writers at papers like News of the World. they should be replaced by trained monkeys. since all they produce is s$%t, anyway.

  • walter

    Sorry to go off topic but I just saw in the press that Jens Lehman during the game from Stutgart yesterday had to pee and he just jumped behind the advertising boards when the game was on the other site of the pitch, did what the nature asked, and then jumped back on the field. 🙂
    As a ref spoken, it should have cost him a yellow card.

    LOL Mad Jens will always stay Mad Jens